“I never played with Bird or Lester Young, and they’re about all I can think of that I didn’t play with,” answered drummer Mel Lewis when questioned about the Who’s Who of jazz he’s played with.
“I played with Miles, Dizzy, Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Ella, Louis – I did the Porgy and Bess album – Sinatra, Torme, Anita O’Day, Joe Williams. I played with Billie Holiday. That was lucky. Stan Levey took off one night and they sent me in to play with Billie at a place called Jazz City out on the West Coast. We had Zoot, Conte Candoli, Jimmy Rowles. I played with Billie one complete night. I was lucky.
“I played with everybody except a couple I didn’t get the opportunity – but the nice thing was I at least had conversations with Bird and Lester. I got to talk with them and know them. I also got to know people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when I lived in Hollywood. Those were kicks of another kind. I worked with them, the masters of their art. I worked with Gene Kelly on a couple of shows. I played with Astaire at his house. Gerry Wiggins, Buddy Clark, Teddy Edwards, and me. That was a fantastic evening. We watched Astaire dancing all over the place and he was really what he was, and more, a real artist. I’ve played with so many people. I didn’t put myself into a rut. I’ve had one of the greatest drum careers of anybody in the business. I can’t think of anyone who’s had a better one.”
Lewis is best-known nowadays as the leader of the big band he and the late composer/arranger Thad Jones created in the early 1960s at The Village Vanguard. They’ve played there most Monday nights ever since. Thad Jones eventually settled in Europe, but Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra play on. They have a new album just being released.
“It’s called Soft Lights, Hot Music. The opening chart is Soft Lights, Sweet Music by Irving Berlin. It’s a hell of an arrangement. I have a contract with Musicmasters for six albums, three big band, three groups. They’ll also do some projects with me and some other people.”
Typically, as on Monday nights at The Village Vanguard, the big band sessions will feature originals by the likes of Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer together with the refreshing variations of standards that have always characterized Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. “That’s still the best way, though this first album is mostly standards.”
Lewis himself is one of the standards of jazz as a drummer and a bandleader – virtually a living history of big band jazz since the latter 1940s.
‘I played record dates that I’d have given anything not to be there. Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles was a million seller. I’ve been on other dumb dates but that one stands out’
“I was born in Buffalo. I came to New York in 1948 with the Lenny Lewis band. Our first gig was the Savoy Ballroom. I went with the Boyd Raeburn band and moved to the West Coast after that. I went right into Alvino Rey’s band. I went back to Buffalo, then decided to come back to New York. I just picked a day and got on a train and that same morning I joined Ray Anthony. I just showed up at the right time. I didn’t even know about it. There were 25 other guys trying out and I beat them all out for the gig. Then I went with the Tex Beneke band when it was the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
“Maynard Ferguson and I were roommates on the Raeburn band and Maynard recommended me to Kenton. That’s when I settled on the West Coast. I played with everybody, Bill Holman, Terry Gibbs, Gerald Wilson. I did the studio thing. I used to complain that I didn’t want to do this or that, but I played Truth Or Consequences and other silly game shows. I played record dates that I’d have given anything not to be there. Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles was a million seller. I’ve been on other dumb dates but that one stands out.
“I remember they were bugged. They thought I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I thought they didn’t know what they were talking about. I made up things for them, but when the date ended, they said I ruined their record. And the damn thing sold four million! They didn’t even thank me. I got 41 dollars for that — minus taxes!”
‘Basie commissioned Thad to write an album. Basie rejected the arrangements. Thad called me and said “I’ve got some arrangements. Let’s have a rehearsal”‘
Lewis eventually returned to New York – again just at the right time. “Everything started to turn around on the West Coast around 1962. All the jazz clubs closed. Things weren’t happening for Bill Holman or Shorty Rogers. I realized I wasn’t making a really good living. I was commuting to New York so much, working with Gern Mulligan, Dizzy, Goodman. I was on the road more and more. I wasn’t really happy out there, so I came back to New York and it turned around again. That was 1963.
“Thad left the Basie band then. We were thrown together in the Mulligan band. We’d been friends for years. He’d just started writing for Gerry’s band. Thad was experimenting. He was going to bring things in for Gerry’s band but he never got around to finishing anything. Thad was searching at that point. Basie commissioned Thad to write an album, 11 or 12 charts, and Thad did them. Thad and I were still just hanging out with each other, still talking about a band of our own. Basie rejected the arrangements. They were such a drastic change from what the Basie band was all about. Thad called me and said ‘I’ve got some arrangements. Let’s have a rehearsal.’
“We started our band with stuff written for Basie. Basie’s name was on the charts when we made our first rehearsal, but that became us. When we opened at the Vanguard a month later, that first Monday night, we only had nine charts. We just hadn’t gotten around to doing all of them. We played those nine charts and stretched them out. That’s where the whole style with long solos and riffs happened. That was the band with Brookmeyer and Snooky Young. We had all that experience in the band. Anything could happen.”
‘Monday night at the Vanguard is probably the biggest pleasure of my life. It’s always a thrill. I never say “Oh, do I have to go?”‘
The Jazz Orchestra will celebrate its 25th anniversary soon. “Monday night at the Vanguard is probably the biggest pleasure of my life. It’s always a thrill. I never say ‘Oh, do I have to go?’ I can’t wait to get there. It’s been this way for years. If I’m away, if I have to go to Europe or somewhere – I have to make a living – I try to have someone like Kenny Washington, Danny Gottlieb, John Riley, a good drummer, to work with the band while I’m away.
“I don’t worry about the band. I know the band is going to sound fine. I didn’t build the band around me. It’s a drummer’s band but not a drum soloist’s band, so any drummer who’s got any sense at all . . . with these kind of guys in the band, the band can play and it’s always going to be good, no matter what – but I go nuts. Wherever I am on a Monday night, I’ll be thinking, ‘They’re just getting ready to go on the bandstand!’ I want to be there! Monday night to me, 52 times a year, I’m thrilled.”